Guidelines for the Paper on Milan Kundera's Identity
At the end of the novel Kundera writes:
Who was dreaming? Who dreamed this story? Who imagined it? She? He?Both of them? Each one for the other?And starting when did their real life change into this treacherous fantasy?
1. Now that you have finished the book Identity (or possibly you are still reading it), you should have realized that the novel is a story that slowly slips from reality into unreality. Hopefully, along the way you questioned the "reality" of the story in the novel. Your assignment is basically to assess:
a) how the novel is structured with regard to reality, fantasy and dream. Also, you should comment on the above--who was dreaming and when was he/she dreaming. Was the whole book a departure from the real or does the plot slowly degrade? You should present a scheme for novel and discuss the plot's unfolding
your process of coming to terms with this basic shift from the "believable" (and therefore the real) to the "unbelievable" (the unreal) may help you discern where the rifts between reality, fantasy and dream are in the text. Where did you find your faith in the reality of the text waning? Where was it tested? How long could you suspend disbelief?
2. This essay is
an interpretation of what is transpiring in the book. Therefore, your paper should include a discussion of each "section" in your interpretive scheme for the novel. You should use particular scenes to illustrate your interpretation of what is happening in the book. You can support for your interpretations of whether a scene represents reality, fantasy or dream (or some combination of these) in several ways:
i) you can use your knowledge of a character's disposition or frame of mind to provide support for why you think the scene represents the reality/unreality you assign to it. In other words, you may ask yourself what are the inner motivations for a character's dream or fantasy. Therefore, analyzing this character may provide support for why you think the scene represents what you think it does in accordance with your interpretive scheme.
ii) you can use any information regarding psychological states of mind (dream states, trance states, meta-dream states, lucid dreaming, etc.) to supprt why you think a scene represents what you think it does in accordance with your interpretive scheme.
3. Try to focus on particular details of the story that made you question the speaker's narrative. Was there a particular scene or detail that was "the straw that broke the camel's back"?
4. In the conclusion try to come to grips with (respond in a coherent manner to) the questions the speaker poses at the end of the novel [see above]. Also in the conclusion you may choose to address what you think Kundera is saying about the connections between fantasy, reality and identity. Or you may wish to address any other aspect of the book.
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In summary, the assignment will include a brief summary of the plot twists (i. e. the process), a discussion of when and why the story seemed to turn into fiction (citing relevant details from the story which were the "last straws", as it were), and finally, in the conclusion, you will address the question(s) the narrator posed concerning from whose perspective the story was "dreamed".
Armed with the knowledge that, at some point, the story was to switch from reality to fantasy, I began reading with a skeptical brow lifting at every odd daydream and memory. The detailed fantasies and flashbacks imagined by Chantal and Jean-Marc throughout the book both validated the idea that fantasy can take over, and led me to believe that a certain amount of un-reality exists from the beginning. Jean-Marc's imagined tragedy about Chantal's death by sail car seemed to signal, at the very least, the character's lack of ability to stay within reality. The characters' tendency to take each event to an emotional extreme and create vividly detailed fantasies and life-altering questions at every chance, suggests a dream-like quality. Dreams are ruled by emotions and can alter drastically at the slightest provocation. Identity' seemed to do so as well. Even Chantal's sudden comment that "the crematory fire is leaving me its visiting card" hinted at a greater emotional power's control over the events taking place. The narrator stated that the phrase was not her invention as Chantal figuratively ran with the idea by leading her conversation with Jean-Marc to a new subject of cremation and the ever-present surveillance she feels is upon her. The random jumps from subject to subject seem to follow an emotional current that is larger than both characters. This also suggests a dream-like quality. Though this made me question the story's reality, I was still able to suspend total disbelief.
Building gradually, the plot took more emotional turns, one after another, until the line at which reality became fantasy was completely blurred. Though my skepticism led me to question the entire book's reality from the first page, I endeavored to discover a clear point at which the story transcends belief. Oddly enough, despite my awareness of what was to take place, I never found that point. Until the story's trip to London, I simultaneously questioned its reality and strained to believe its plausibility.
One of the most obvious dream-like aspects of the book was Chantal's tendency to recognize people as part of the espionage plotting against her. It seemed she was constantly projecting her own fear of being controlled on her surroundings. She recognized the man at the café as her stalker. She believed the young man at the graphologist's office to be the man who allegedly attempted to hold her captive in Normandy, and fantasized that the beggar on the street was her spy. Her emotional reaction to this seemed to be creating the events that supported her fear. Though this also suggested fantasy, I accepted the possibility that perhaps Chantal was just a highly imaginative and paranoid character.
When Jean-Marc began to follow a similar pattern, I was more convinced that reality had already slipped away. Jean-Marc constantly worried about not recognizing Chantal, the one justifiable and stable aspect of his life, and, therefore, projected that onto every event possible: the fictitious sail car tragedy, Chantal's unrecognizably aged face, the constant comments regarding "bad casting" and Chantal's being replaced by another, the foreign image of Chantal calling her ex-husband "mousie," and finally her retaining two conformist faces that betrayed Jean-Marc's belief in her strength and identity. On the train to London he observed that "he found it impossible to recognize that hand; it was the hand of someone else; he didn't feel that Chantal was betraying him... he felt as if she no longer existed for him." I believed this to be Jean-Marc's projection of his ultimate fear and, therefore, further indication of a fantastic atmosphere.
The point at which I could no longer suspend disbelief, though not completely resolved about when the official transcendence began, was when Chantal arrived at the train station and found her friends waiting. This was so obviously the work of a dream that I could no longer make myself believe it as reality. I immediately concluded that the dream began when Chantal fell asleep during the couple's fight. After reconsideration, however, I retracted that conclusion and became more confused. Thinking back, it seems to me that the dream could have started at the beginning when Jean-Marc had the first set of mentioned nightmares (that were based on his fears about not recognizing Chantal). This would have accounted for the above-mentioned dream-like patterns of emotional control throughout the book. This conclusion led me to believe that it was Jean-Marc's dream, based on his fears of losing Chantal, the only stability in his life. The inclusion of Chantal's complex fears and preoccupations, however, suggest she is the one dreaming about being controlled.
I think Identity is a combination of both Chantal and Jean-Marc's dreams set in Milan Kundera's extremely complex imagination. My favorite theory, based on the fact that Jean-Marc not only wakes Chantal at the conclusion of the book but is also the first to begin fantasizing, is that Jean-Marc is dreaming a fantasy wherein Chantal is dreaming. Each not for each other rather for his and her fear.
Comments on Student Paper #1
Student Paper #1 has a number of coherent interpretations that compete throughout the paper. The most valid support for the author's interpretation was in paragraph's 3 and 4 when the author defined the consistent dream-like state of the book as manifestations of Jean-Marc's and Chantal's deep-seated anxieties and their resultant projections. However, she does not completely rule out the possibility that these two characters aren't just highly imaginative. Certainly the litany of neurotic thoughts on Chantal's part and the equally long list of Jean-Marc's repressed fears that the author points to provide great evidence. However, any of the scenes alluded to could have been expanded and discussed in further detail [this might have allowed the author to reach the 1000 word minimum].
The discussion of the point where the author could no longer suspend disbelief was more confusing. The author seemed to be less definitive. The author may have entertained too many possibilities. Although the author was frank about his/her confusion, it is/was the author's job to provide definition.
Similarly, in the last paragraph there is one more interpreation teased out, but there is little to no evidence for this interpretation. the author simply asserts it. And the notion in the last line that the characters are dreaming solely to feed his/.her own fear seems to defy understanding completely.
Overall, many of the insights are provocative and fresh. But sometimes there exists a lack of control of the many the ideas the author employs.
Student Paper #2
In Kundera's book Identity the narrator posed the question concerning whose perspective the story was "dreamed from." I tend to believe that the story is dreamed from the perspective of Chantal. Her dream began the night she and Jean-Marc argued after her sister-in-law left the apartment. I also feel that the beginning of the book was also a part of that same dream. It may have been that Kundera started telling us the story in the middle of her dream, then we arrived at the point where she actually began the dream then it went beyond that point. "Her sleep was a hundred times interrupted and full of dreams that were unpleasant and disjointed, absurd, meaningless, and distressingly erotic" as was the whole book.
Chantal finds erotic and existential threads everywhere in daily behavior. Her shared fantasies with Jean-Marc are self-reflective images of herself that manifest themselves in her dreams.
In her first dream scene in the hotel in a small town off the coast of Normandy was populated exclusively by figures from her past. These figures included her mother who had died long ago and her ex-husband with his new wife and overbearing sister. Her former husband had made some vague erotic proposition. His new wife then kissed Chantal on the lips and tried to slip her tongue in her mouth. This disgusted Chantal so much that she woke from her dream. I am not sure why this disgusted her so because as we find out she is into orgies which includes women, maybe it's the saliva thing?
Next we are told about Chantal's fantasy at the age of sixteen or so she had a cherished metaphor of herself as a rose fragrance. As a fragrance she could "move through all men." The fantasy of being promiscuous was a romantic one for Chantal. This idea in itself is evidence that she lives for the moment with no regard to what effect this type of behavior would have on her future.
Then we have the scene on the beach where her present identity comes into question again when she makes the statement "men don't turn to look at me anymore." In her past when she was younger she made heads turn, but now they no longer turn so she has to re-evaluate who she is now. This statement made to Jean--Marc sets off another scenario when Chantal begins to receive letters from an anonymous admirer (in any case, it isn't much of a secret). She suspects each new man she encounters to be the mysterious scribe and fantasizes how each might perceive her. Gradually, these letters, affect how Chantal views herself and her relationship with Jean-Marc, until her feelings and identity become unrecognizable both to her lover and to herself.
Finally, the scene in the book that began at the train station was "the straw that broke the camel's back." When Chantal left for London on a lark, and coincidentally ran into her fellow colleagues that were "waiting" for her. The sexual description of the channel she saw as "a round black hole into which, like a snake, the train was about to glide." Throughout the whole trip the conversations that Chantal had with Leroy and the refined older lady were sexual in nature. Her fantasy of having the older lady chained up, and forced to recite her naive verities. Chantal thought that she would be the perfect victim of an orgy. To complete this unbelievable story of reality is where Jean-Marc suddenly appears in front of a White House where he believes that an orgy is taking place. Somehow he knows that Chantal is there and in need of rescue. The orgy scene in the house, when at first Chantal was ready to respond to the blonde who showed interest in her, but then the blonde made a gesture with saliva (or something else in her mouth) that disgusted Chantal so, she ran from her. She hid in a closet with a dog that somehow transformed into a man. She wanted to leave the house but could not find a door to exit the house from. Now Chantal is led into a parlor where she waits naked for the septuagenarian. Here she is so deep into her fantasy/dreams, almost as if she is in a comma like state that she totally losses her identity.
To conclude this "treacherous fantasy" Chantal is rescued by Jean-Marc when he wakes her by calling out her name, "Chantal! Chantal! Chantal!" He is also more importantly, giving her back her identity.
For Chantal, identity is defined by the perceptions of strangers. Her dreams, to the extent that impose a "leveling contemporaneity of everything a person has ever experienced." They remind her that she has a past, when she feels that she exists only in the present, that she is who she is only at any given moment. This is why her dreams disturb her so; they remind her that she has a past. When she began this dream it went back to her past and that is why I believe that the dream began the night of the argument with Jean -Marc.
Comments on Student Paper #2
The first paragraph presents a very logical interpreation that a reader may be able to follow. The author even includes a quote from the book that seems to support the interpretation that the book is dreamt in fits and starts and that even the chronology of the dream as it was dreamed in real time may be cut up and rearranged as Kundera presents the dream in the book.
The author gives pretty good evidence that the scene in the hotel is a dream and she bases this on the unbelievable fact that Chantal's mother slips Chantal the tongue during an innocent kiss.
The next section where the author addresses Chantal's idea of being a rose fragrance seems to correspond in the author's mind to an example of Chantal's capacity for fantasy, but this, in no way, addresses the basic reality, or lack thereof, of the situation.
The scene on the beach is then discussed, but it is not discussed in terms of whether it is part of a dream or not. The author seems to be analyzing this scene in terms of Chantal's lack of identity.
The final example paragraph examines the crucial train station scene (and beyond). The paragraph is primarily a plot summary of all the strange occurrences in the last section of the book. Then in a rather abrupt last sentence of analysis, the author declares that these strange occurrences must all be instances of dream.
Then there is a brief paragraph on Jean-Marc's rescue of Chantals' identity. However, it is unclear how this relates to the basic notion of the book being dreamt in fits and starts.
Finally, the last paragraph suggests yet another starting for the point, yet provides no evidence or explanation for this. It is simply stated.
Overall, while the initial map of the book as it is laid out at the outset in the first paragraph is seductive, the author does not fully deliver on this interpretation. The author gets sidetracked at times and discusses the notion of Chantal's lost identity in the book. We are not instructed where the breaches and gaps in the dream exist. We do not exactly know when readers expreience dream (and whose is it?) and when readers experience something other than dream. What is the timeline for this dream? Where does it loop around on itself as the author suggests in the first paragraph. Although the author's paragraph is a highly complicated and creative one, it is not completely and satisfactorily borne out.
Student Paper #3
Student Paper #4